Wednesday, May 27, 2020

Bait Reef (Outer Whitsundays)

[Kyle]After spending all morning and two dozen dropped calls downloading our weather files, I decided a good time for us to leave Scawfell Island would be at the tail end of the storm, before we would lose the wind. The bad news was that we would have to leave our condensation-soaked cabin, put on lots of foul-weather gear and go outside to sail in the rain. As our departure time approached, we kept stalling and looking at the other one, hoping someone would say, “Let's just stay another night.” In the end, no one flinched, so we left.

Miserable cold weather for an overnight passage - but after arriving and taking a short nap - we had sunshine again

Just as we had gone outside, a monohull appeared out of the mist and picked up the mooring ball nearest us. They were the first other boat we had seen since arriving three days earlier. By the time they were secured, Maryanne had cast off our line and we were drifting sideways out of the bay. We unfurled the jib, turned downwind and disappeared into the same mist from which they had come.

My first watch was an exercise in frustration. We had wind, but it was so variable in speed and direction that I was constantly having to get drenched reefing, unreefing, gybing, gybing back. Every time I sat down, I had to get up again. Ordinarily, I would take this as just the nature of wind powered boats, but Maryanne was off watch. Much as I tried, there was no way I could keep from stomping around on the deck above her head and making loud, winch-cranking noises as I tried to get control of sails that were constantly flapping and banging. I just knew there was no way she was sleeping through any of it.

She took it in stride, though, and emerged ready for her few hours in the cold rain. She did the whole thing without complaint and without giving up early and saying she just couldn't keep her eyes open any more. I had been kind of expecting that.

She had some pretty good speed while I had been sleeping fitfully down below. All I had to do when I got up was get us the last few miles before dawn. That was nice, because I could just leave everything over-reefed for the gusts and wait out the lulls. For the last hour, I dropped the sails altogether and we crawled along under bare poles. Gybing under bare poles is easy! (For non-sailors, a gybe is the maneuver performed when the apparent wind is behind the boat and has to be switched from one side to the other. It involves repositioning all of the sails to take the wind on the other side, which is a bit of a kerfuffle. With no sail, none of that is necessary. All you have to do is turn the wheel.)

When morning broke, I woke her up so she could help guide us through the bommies to one of the public moorings at Bait Reef. She was resistant at first, but was buoyed by the news that the rain appeared to be finished for good. We picked up the pendant, did our usual post-sail checklist and then went below for a short nap.

We awoke to a completely different world. The rain was gone. The clouds were gone! It was warm and sunny and the wind had died off to just the slightest breath. Plus, we were at a reef, which meant no land to harbor any bugs. We opened all of the hatches and left them that way, day and night, until we left.

We donned our snorkel gear, plunged into the water and were immediately confronted with a giant, black fish holding court over a school of smaller fusiliers (blue reef fish with bright yellow tails). Actually, it was a small to medium-sized tuna (a Blackfin, I think), but a medium-sized tuna is way bigger than most reef fish. Up close in the water, it looked fearsome with its scythe-shaped fins and its big mouth bristling with hypodermic needle teeth.

Tuna are way faster than most fishes. If this guy saw something interesting that he thought might be food, the departure and arrival points would suddenly be connected by a black blur. This is a bit disconcerting when he thought the food might be near us. When he did, the other fish jumped out of his way like he was a big truck entering a freeway.

To make matters more interesting, Maryanne threw in some stale oatmeal we have been meaning to get rid of. The place went nuts! The big, scary fish was first to the scene, but was unable to scoop up everything at once, leaving most of it to the fusiliers. They very lazily took care of the rest without going into a competitive frenzy. Seemingly out of nowhere came several serving platter-sized long-finned spadefish, a big angelfish look-alike with adorable little Nemo faces. They like oatmeal, too.

We headed for the reef edge. The reef here is definitely in trouble. We saw big areas of completely dead or mostly dead coral along with a few smaller regions that were still doing okay. There were plenty of different fishes, sponges and clams to see, though.

Partway through our swim, we realized we have been noticing a few big, silver Pompanos, which are usually found in deep water. After a little while, we figured out it was the same fish. He was following us. No matter where we went, he was always nearby. If we would stop to look at something, he'd mill around patiently until we were ready to move on. Then he would join up with us and swim only inches away as if we were all in the same school and this was what we did. If one of us fell behind, he would usually hang back with the straggler until they caught up. It reminded us of those times we have been out hiking and some friendly dog just decided he was going to be our companion for the day. When we were safely back at the boat, he just faded back to wherever he had come from and left us in the care of the school under Begonia.

We had some more fun that night when making dinner. When it came time to throw our table scraps overboard, we decided to take it slowly and see what they like. The tuna really liked cucumbers, tomatoes and raw potatoes, but would spit out any potato peels. That was unexpected. Chunks of potato with the peel still on were okay sometimes, not okay others. The spadefish liked onion skins, but not the onions themselves and nobody went for bell peppers. The tuna doesn't like corn flakes or crackers, but everybody else loves them. I particularly like a glass of wine.

Our resident fish were always nearby and seemed grateful for a scratch or a snack of scraps.
Kyle is scratching a Humphead Wrass that keeps returning for more, and I'm being prompted for food by (what we think is) a Giant Trevally

Morning came again and we decided to have a long snorkel the other way, towards the middle of the lagoon. First, Maryanne had the idea that before we went, I should slice up a potato and bring it in with me to hand out to our big school. Everything was going great until I was descending the stairs to our swim ladder. I slipped on a wet patch and fell one step. I managed to land without hurting myself, but the very end slice of the potato slipped out of my hand and landed in front of Maryanne's face. She was already in the water. The tuna saw this and raced up at tuna speed, which is about thirty knots. All Maryanne saw was a huge, gaping mouth full of teeth charging straight at her. Whoops. Well, it was nice knowing her.

Tuna are also very maneuverable. The fish executed a ninety-degree turn in the three inches it had left before slamming into her. It left behind a froth of aerated water. Yikes.

The other fish were much more gentle, including a newly arrived big Humphead (Napoleon) Wrasse. He was even bigger than the tuna and swam around lazily like he knew at his size that he had nothing to fear from the others.

Just like last time, as we were about two Begonia lengths away, our Pompano minder joined us for the day's swim. I'm pretty sure it was the same fish. We have spent enough time swimming eye to eye that I recognize his markings, particularly a little notch bitten out of his tail.

We have been seeing lots of clams. They are beautiful, with their multi-colored mantles. Maryanne waved me over to see one in particular. It was a little guy, maybe three inches across with bright green iridescent flesh. Okay. Well, thanks for showing me.

“No, not that one”, she gestured, “That one!” She pointed to one that was three feet across.

Yay! We finally found one!

The first time we ever swam on the Great Barrier Reef was during our vacation in 2009. We had booked a day tour out of Cairns, which sped us out to the reef for a couple of hours of snorkeling. I remember it being nice, but the one thing that really stood out for me was the Giant Clams, which we hadn't seen anywhere else. Now that we've seen one, it feels like we have finally made it to the real barrier reef.

By the time we had finished swimming, we had found four more.

Snorkelling on the reef and bommies
We were enamoured by every Giant Clam we found

The crowd was still at the boat, no doubt wondering what's for dinner. As I was getting out. The humphead wrass swam up close enough to the swim ladder for me to reach out and stroke him on the side. I expected him to flinch when he felt my touch, but instead, he circled around three more times for another little scratch. Aww, what a big sweetie! Maryanne says we can't keep him.

Our third time in the next morning, we started by chucking a handful of corn flakes in the water. The adorable spadefish went crazy for that. I drifted into the middle of the melee and had a few times when my whole mask was filled with the black and yellow side of one fish. Emboldened by my wrasse encounter, I took to reaching out and gently steering them out of the way with a little push on their sides. They didn't seem to mind this at all. Oh what fun, swimming in an aquarium full of gentle, platter-sized tropical fish who bump into me like I'm one of their own!

And the tuna. You've got to keep your eye on that tuna.

Our Pompano chaperoned us on another tour of a different part of the reef, pausing with us to let us enjoy the Giant Clams. We found one that was a meter across! He dropped us off at Begonia and handed us back to the care of the Longfin Spadefish. Aw, what the hell. We can spare a few more cornflakes. They are so much fun.

Our constant neighbours

{Maryanne: Once we actually got back to land and could verify the fish species, it turned out that the 'tuna' and 'Pompano' that we befriended were actually Trevally (probably Giant Trevally, possibly Big-Eye Trevally). Apparently as they age their skin turns more black. We loved our few days out on the reef, with the friendly fish off our back steps, and the beautiful clear nights where we could enjoy the stars laid back on the trampoline, it felt like a perfect holiday for us. A few other boats came and went, but the place was never busy.}.

Saturday, May 23, 2020

Scawfell Island (South Cumberland Islands National Park)

[Kyle]As a strong cold front went through Pearl Bay, our feet-up days became increasingly choppier until we were getting around the boat by lunging from handhold to handhold. Time to go.

Our initial plan had been to make our next stop at one of the outer reefs further up the coast, but the only one that had seemed suitable was likely to be taking a real pounding by the weather, so we decided to skip it and continue to Scawfell Island, even further along.

As expected, it was a pretty rough sail. We had only the reefed main up, but were still surfing fast down the building waves. Occasionally, one of those waves would smack us just so and the person sitting at the helm would get a quick splash. At least the water is getting a little warmer. That takes the initial shock off of the dousing, but then the wind takes the remaining heat away and it's just cold. By the time Scawfell Island started looming ahead as a darker lump in the dark, moonless night, We were looking forward to getting a break.

Scawfell is a U-shaped island. The anchorage is on the leeward side, surrounded by a semi-circle of 300-meter high hills. The hills block the wind half of the time. The other half, it comes barreling down the slopes as a katabatic wind known locally as “bullets”. Our main hope was that the bay was concave enough to prevent any outside swell from successfully bending its way into the anchorage.

At daybreak, we approached the island and rounded the corner. I was half expecting the island to be super-busy like Keppel, but instead, we were the only one there. We picked up the public mooring closest to the beach. The swell wasn't gone, but was reduced from the throw-us-around kind to the rock-us-to-sleep kind. Nice!

After a brief nap to make up for the long night sail, we boarded the dinghy and headed to the beach. There was a sign there announcing the island as a National Park as well as a covered picnic area and pit latrines for the adjacent tent sites. We poked around for a bit, certain that we would find some kind of trail either zigzagging its way up the mountain or traversing to one of the adjacent beaches. We searched for quite a while until we determined that none existed. That meant the only thing the island had to offer in the way of diversions was a walk on the long, empty beach.

That was nice enough. There was plenty of interesting geology to enjoy and as the tide receded, the beach widened to include plenty of tide pools to explore. All the while, we had a soundtrack provided by the resident mockingbirds. Their favorite call sounded like they were saying “Wheee!” They must really like it when the wind swings them back and forth on their branches.

Exploring along the beach and shoreline

We had planned a couple more days at Scawfell, but after our one-afternoon beach excursion, we decided we could keep moving. Then we checked the weather. We were still trying to get out to the big reef that runs all of the way up and down the coast, but we weren't having much luck. More wind and lots of rain was in the forecast. We decided we would be best off waiting it out at Scawfell after all.

For the next two and a half days, it rained in sheets. We caught enough to refill all of our tanks. The wind was strong enough to keep our batteries full all day and night, which was good because our solar panels were barely able to eke any power out of the looming gray. We couldn't get a cell phone signal and even our sat phone was intermittent because of all of the rock around us. That made us feel less productive and more isolated than usual. By the end, we were feeling cooped up and ready to go.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Pearl Bay (Capricornia Coast)

[Kyle]We were up early again for our next leg up to one of Australia's many Pearl Bays - this one on the mainland along the Capricornia Coast of Queensland. The wind had picked up quite a bit during our stay at Keppel, so our spinnaker stayed unused in its bag for the trip. The jib was more than enough sail for the day.

Unlike back at Keppel, when we arrived at Pearl Bay, we found ourselves to be the only ones there. It is mostly protected from the southeast swell and surrounded by pretty, pine-covered islets. This particular Pearl Bay lies within a giant military firing range and is one of three places therein where transiting boats are allowed to shelter from the weather. No firing is planned in the immediate future, so we were fine there. I think the main reason for its relative unpopularity is that, since it is surrounded by the vast military training area, there are no restaurants or beach bars to visit, no cell phone service. You are not even allowed to land on the beach for sundowners. That pretty much gets rid of the weekend crowd.

Well, perhaps there is some interesting snorkeling to be had.

Perhaps, but no. Our main guidebook is unequivocal on this: “Do not swim in the waters!” It seems we have now come far enough north to be in THAT part of Australia. The lack of development along Pearl Bay's shores (especially the two river mouths that sandwich the bay), has left behind plenty of great habitat for crocodiles.

We had hoped to take out the dinghy and explore around some of the lovely coastlines and islands within the bay, but the weather kept us snug inside Begonia
The only nice day was the day we arrived.

The forecast for the next couple of days is for plenty of rain. Looks like a perfect opportunity to take a couple of “Feet-up days”, as our friend Nic refers to them.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

Great Keppel Island

[Kyle]We left Pancake Creek in the darkness before dawn. With a third-quarter moon, radar and Maryanne up at the bows sweeping a spotlight back and forth, we managed to get out without getting too close to any of the sandbanks. Once we were safely clear of the bar, we turned downwind, popped the spinnaker and, foom! We were off.

The bright lights on the horizon quickly resolved themselves into the big cargo ships in their anchorage off of the Port of Grafton. We altered course slightly and passed a quarter mile from the nearest one. It's amazing how the size of a ship can make that seem like that's not going to be enough. We weren't close enough to be in any potential security zones, but were probably close enough to set off an AIS proximity alarm on the bridge. I imagined the anchor watch wondering what the hell a sailboat was doing out here at this hour. Keeping them on their toes, of course.

We had such a fast run that we arrived at Great Keppel Island four hours earlier than our original prediction from the day's forecast. When we were coming around the back side of the island, we noticed one AIS target there, and then two. When we rounded the last corner, we were surprised to find seventeen other boats already at anchor. We have not seen a crowd that big since Sydney.

This is when it's great to have a catamaran (or any low draught boat). We weaved our way through the fleet and dropped our anchor on the sand. The depth was just under two meters of water at low tide. We spent the rest of the afternoon watching Cruiser's TV, being entertained by all of the antics of the other boats and their dinghies. Most seemed to be Australians who had ducked out for an early weekend under the new, “It's now okay to go sailing” rules. (Previously, sailing was allowed “for exercise” as long as you went home every night. Since we live here, we were in a bit of a gray area.)

In the morning, we headed to shore for a hike on Keppel's longest trail. On our sail in, we had seen the other end of it terminating at the automated lighthouse on the opposite side of the island from our anchorage. It runs six kilometers, mostly along the ridge that bisects the island's north and south drainage areas.

Around the bay at Svendson's Beach

Judging by the number of dinghies ashore, we were expecting to have loads of company on the walk and many opportunities to worry about social distancing, but it never happened. The only other people we saw was one couple just finishing the trail as we were starting. We met them at a crossing where we were trying to figure out exactly which branch to take. They gave us the valuable tip of pointing out the trail markers on the ground: smooth black stones painted with white handwriting saying which way to go. In addition to trail directions, there were occasionally others inscribed with a quote or a poem. Nice touch. There were also pairs of plastic chairs placed at the tops of climbs and at viewpoints.

Views from the trail - we had it all to ourselves (along with the goats)

After finally traversing the island, we descended down a slope covered with loose scree and bare rock to the lighthouse below. As we did, we startled a couple of feral goats munching at the side of the path. They bleated and scurried off towards another few more standing on the clifftops. Then we saw a bunch of others pop their heads up to see what's going on. In the end, we counted a herd of about a dozen, nervously watching our every step.

We left them to their grazing and headed back up the hill for home, stopping frequently to look at interesting rocks or bugs or just to sit and enjoy the views. In the end, we were having to carefully pace ourselves to make sure we arrived back at the dinghy before sunset.

Just before we were done, I noticed a shuffling in the underbrush. I thought it might be a Rail or some other ground dwelling bird, maybe a big Goana if we were lucky. It was even better than that! It was a little Echidna snuffling its way through the underbrush. Our first wild Echidna sighting!

We started out observing cautiously from afar, taking slow quiet steps to get closer. It didn't run, so we were eventually able to get up nice and close.

We needn't have been so coy. Echidnas seem to know they can't outrun us, so they don't even try. This little guy saw me and then took a couple of steps over to a spot where he could hide his face in the ground cover beneath a big branch. Then he just sat there, presenting me with nothing but an armor of quills. Apparently, it's possible to pick up these defenseless little animals. Their mouths are too small small to bite effectively and they do not have control of their quills like porcupines. Still, they look enough like porcupines to make you think a while before trying to grab one. Since I had no compelling reason to stress out some poor little animal who was just trying to forage for his dinner, I decided to let him be.

Well, that was a find! A little further down the trail, we saw another one! This time, we weren't shy and just walked up to say hi. We got the same reaction: face in the dirt. Awww!

Seeing the echidnas was a real treat, and the butterflies continue to delight us
We made it back to shore in time for sunset

A little later, we descended into the zone of forest where all of the Grass Trees grow. These are the preferred food of the jillions of Blue Tiger butterflies migrating through the area. As it was the end of the day, they were all refueling before setting down for the night in the nearby trees. As we walked by, they would silently flutter into the air around us until we had passed. Then they would float back to their perches.

At the beach, we headed towards the other dinghies to see where everybody else was. They were all hanging out together at a shelter on the beach decorated with paraphernalia left by other cruising boats over the years. We introduced ourselves (from a covid safe distance) and received only a few brief acknowledgements. We thought we may have interrupted a group, but one of the guys nearest us explained that they were all a random assortment who had just met, {later we noticed it is marked as a general pot-luck/sundowner meet up point for anyone to join}. We hadn't come prepared, and were happy to keep our distance from groups of strangers anyway. We bid them all a good night, received no response, and hastened back to the dinghy.

In the morning, we decided to go for a snorkel to see if anything was happening down below. Oh, what a change it was from just a little bit further south. The corals were fewer and farther between and mostly seemed long dead, with a scattering of survivors, some of which seemed to have suffered from a recent bleaching event. The water was also very murky, making things seem even less vibrant. We swam along the rocks clear over to the next anchorage half a mile away, but the situation never really improved. At least we got to see that our anchor was well buried and get a good wash.